EU foreign policy chief urges easing of embargo

THE international community must pressure Israel to go beyond easing its Gaza embargo and throw open the territory’s long-blockaded borders, the EU foreign policy chief said after a tour of the Hamas-run coastal strip.

Catherine Ashton is the most senior diplomat to visit Gaza since Israel announced earlier this month that it would relax its three-year blockade to allow most consumer goods into the coastal strip of 1.5 million Palestinians.

Her trip came the same day as a flurry of diplomatic meetings in Cairo, where Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is hosting separate talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Mideast envoy George Mitchell.

Netanyahu, who met earlier yesterday with Mitchell in Jerusalem, told Israel’s cabinet that he would talk to Mubarak about ways to resume direct talks with the Palestinians.

In Gaza, Israel continues to ban virtually all exports into the territory and restricts the import of badly needed construction supplies and raw materials for industry. And along with Egypt, it prevents most Gazans from travelling.

“The position of the EU is very clear. We want to see the opportunity for people to be able to move around freely, to see goods not only coming in to Gaza, but exports coming out of Gaza,” Ashton said at her first stop, the Megapharm pharmaceuticals company.

Later, she told a news conference that “what needs to happen now is continued international pressure to move forward”.

Israel, citing security concerns, has signalled that it is not willing completely to open border crossings.

In Gaza, Ashton met with local business leaders and was told Gaza’s battered economy can only recover if all raw materials are allowed into Gaza and finished products can be exported.

The EU plans to offer €22 million in grants to some 900 Gaza businesses to help them start up again.

Her visit coincided with the arrival of humanitarian aid originally carried by a Libyan commissioned ship that was prevented by the Israeli navy from reaching Gaza.

Forty trucks loaded with food and medicine were to enter the territory through Israeli and Egyptian crossings yesterday.


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